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“What’s your shoe size?” asked a stylishly dressed woman in the front row of the classroom.

“Eight,” the student answered regretfully. “I don’t think they’ll fit.”

Other students were filing in, waiting for the event to begin—an opportunity to sit down with renowned shoe designer and philanthropist Stuart Weitzman. A kind of Cinderella story was playing out, with Weitzman’s colleague circulating to find the person who could model a dazzling pair of Weitzman’s evening shoes.

Co-hosted by Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship, the Duke Career Center, and Jewish Life at Duke, the talk was geared towards students interested in fashion, entrepreneurship, and design.

“Perseverence and determination outweigh talent and genius. It’s almost a proverb how many geniuses there are who you’ve never heard of,” Weitzman said as he shared his own story of breaking into the fashion industry, then continually finding creative new ways to reach customers.

“Listening to Stuart Weitzman speak about his entrepreneurial mindset was such a valuable experience,” said Gilli Weitzner ’23. “I was inspired by his stories about leading with passion, thinking outside of the box, and staying true to your brand.”

Weitzman’s entrepreneurial journey began with his decision to create unique shoes for women walking red carpets. “They were all just wearing whatever their stylists bought for them.” He got in touch with Aretha Franklin’s stylist, who agreed to outfit her with a pair of Weitzman’s shoes for the American Music Awards. Weitzman wondered to the stylist whether her client might mention, on the red carpet, who had designed her shoes.

“But Aretha Franklin took it a step further,” Weitzman said with a laugh. “She won—and then she thanked me in her acceptance speech for making shoes that were so beautiful and so comfortable. Thirteen million women saw that, and every stylist in Hollywood.”

Aretha Franklin Stuart Weitzman
Stuart Weitzman recounts Aretha Franklin thanking him in her 1983 American Music Awards speech

Weitzman spoke about drawing inspiration from other shoe designers—though never from competitors. “Tevas helped inspire the gladiator sandal,” he exclaimed. “It was a shoe that hadn’t been made since Roman times.” Muses like Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn have also been sources of inspiration, Weitzman said. “Nothing I’ve done in business has been as influential as the thigh-high boot,” he said—which was inspired by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.

According to Weitzman, “There’s nothing that can separate you from your competitor better than your imagination.”

He shared images of award-winning, innovative ads for his brand. Some unfolded from magazines into posters; some didn’t even feature shoes at all. He described pursuing famous clients like Jennifer Aniston and Kate Middleton, now the Princess of Wales, by stocking the stores where his staff had discovered they shopped. He described his successful strategies for opening stores around the world.

When he realized his designs had not evolved for a younger clientele—a fellow guest at a wedding told him, “My mother wears your shoes,” Weitzman recounted, miming a dagger to the heart—he made a short film commercial starring Kate Moss and directed by James Franco that made headlines.

Weitzman stressed the importance of being able to solve a problem. “We were putting gorgeous shoes on actresses, but 30% of them didn’t wear those shoes because they changed their dress at the last minute,” he explained. “So we had to design a shoe that would go with everything and look perfect with everything.”

“Which is what this young lady is going to model for you now,” he added, beaming.

And here was the fairytale ending, with a student rising from her seat to walk down the aisle in a pair of sparkling Stuart Weitzman shoes.

Quick Quotes

On Choosing Your First Job:

“The best advice I could give someone coming out of college is work somewhere else first. Pick a company that’s doing what you hope to do, because you want to learn from someone who’s already been there. The company [I worked for] made a lot of mistakes, and I never made any of those mistakes myself.”

On Choosing Your Business Partners:

“Be careful who you partner with when you go into business. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean they’re going to be a good partner to you.”

On the Value of Philanthropic Engagement:

“I really advise you to be part of the community. You don’t need a lot of money – you can get so much pleasure from helping people.”

Read more about Stuart Weitzman’s entrepreneurial journey in his interview with The Chronicle.